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Improving the St. Louis Cardinals as returns keep diminishing

This was pretty neat.
This was pretty neat.

Guys! Welcome to the Diminishing Returns portion of our offseason! It was easy to replace Tyler Greene—really the Ryan Theriot/Pete Kozma blank space—with Rafael Furcal, and it was only vaguely novel to place Carlos Beltran at the front of the outfielder carousel. Now: The part of the offseason where teams scramble over relievers to push the worst guy out of the bullpen and wonder, out loud, about whether Roy Oswalt would consider a relief role.

The Cardinals are likely as good now as they're going to be until they actually start playing baseball games, but that leaves us a month or so until pitchers and catchers start getting our hopes up soon. Hall of Fame outrage only gets us so far, and St. Louis was rapidly out of the Prince Fielder sweepstakes, so we've reached the portion of our Hot Stove League schedule where it takes a few more blows from the bellows to get the embers going.

Bullpen rejiggering! Bench optimization! Platoon situations! Get psyched!

Bullpen Rejiggering

The Cardinals kind of put a damper on this one early when they chose specifically to retain the Back of the Bullpen himself, Kyle McClellan, tendering him a contract in the immediate aftermath of the Great Skip Schumaker Revolt of 2011. McClellan looked like a pretty good reliever in 2008 and 2009 and looked on his way to being a pretty good reliever in 2010, when his walk rate fell from would-be-flamethrower levels.

His stint as the replacement-level starter of choice might be making him less interesting, through no fault of his own—any cheap reliever's going to look worse when you put him out of his depth. But I think the main thing that depresses me about the Cardinals retaining Kyle McClellan is simply that he's not somebody else's Kyle McClellan; the most exciting middle relief pitchers are always the ones you haven't seen yet.

Unless they're J.C. Romero.

With a little depth still remaining at the minor league level and McClellan stoppering the major league bullpen into his arbitration years, the Cardinals have less room than usual to rearrange the relievers into a more pleasing shape. So disappears one of the simplest January pleasures.

Bench Optimization

This one's tough, too—the Cardinals' easiest upgrades, in this case, involved reshaping the depth chart anyway. Tyler Greene and whichever of Allen Craig and Jon Jay isn't playing went a long way toward optimizing the Opening Day bench, though it's unlikely to be nearly as effective as it was in 2011.

What's left? A FREE MATT CARPENTER (the ninth-best prospect in the Cardinals' system, per our in-house scouting robot) campaign? I'd be fine with that—he's clearly ready. But the way the Cardinals are built right now he's likely to see time in the bigs whether it's as a pinch hitter and David Freese's caddy or as Freese's DL replacement, and his lack of positional versatility—even talked-up positional versatility—is worrisome.

I'm also in favor of the Cardinals keeping Erik Komatsu around as long as possible, just because he seems functionally identical to Adron Chambers and might as well be kept in the system, but I can't get too worked up about it yet.

Platoon Situations

I'd like to see another middle infielder brought through on a minor league deal. But my last remaining hobbyhorse is an old one—platoon the defensively imperfect, left-handed non-star second baseman with a right-handed non-star infielder. This time it's Daniel Descalso and Tyler Greene, instead of Skip Schumaker and anyone else in the universe.

But the good thing about platoon situations this time of year is that you don't even need the Cardinals to do anything to begin speculating. And in January, with the bullpen and the bench already firming up, that's valuable.